When Emotions Run High

The last time you experienced a communication problem may have been because you were too upset to properly convey your message, writes Elizabeth Suárez.

May 18, 2016

Everyone agrees that communication is important, and most of us work hard to hone this essential skill. However, what if we were to look at the dictionary’s definition of communication compared to our own personal style of communication? We would more than likely find that we focus on expressing our thoughts in a nonproductive, emotional manner rather than taking the time to share how we really feel about the situation, while acknowledging the other party’s views.

No matter what your role is in higher education, you often need to interact and communicate with colleagues and peers when emotions are high. And communicating successfully, despite extreme emotions, is key to relationship building and conflict resolution.

Think about the last time you experienced a communication problem. Were you so upset that you could not think clearly enough to properly convey your message? When you let your emotions lead without acknowledging their impact, information is often lost between parties, resulting in misconceptions and hurt feelings.

Yet emotions and emotional exchanges are unavoidable. So then, how can you effectively navigate a conversation when emotions have gotten the best of you?

During the HERS Leadership Institutes, we find that most of our participants strive to be effective communicators, delivering clear messages and listening for input. Some HERS participants also deploy active listening and response techniques, referred to by Raymonda Burgman, director of the HERS Institutes, as the LARA methodology, in which people listen, affirm, respond and add with the intent to improve communication. This approach allows for the transfer of information while incorporating checkpoints where the parties can confirm and expand on the message being delivered.

Nevertheless, as an alternative dispute resolution strategist, I have seen firsthand how the LARA approach does not work when strong emotions are at play. It is too easy for people to forget the technique and instead communicate their emotions rather than their ideas.

During these types of exchanges, you must also assess your nonverbal communication. According to Albert Mehrabian, professor emeritus of psychology at the University of California at Los Angeles, only 7 percent of effective communication comes from the spoken word, and 93 percent is generated from nonverbal cues like tone of voice and gestures. Therefore, by only being aware of their message’s intellectual content when they speak, people run the risk of the other party not being able to absorb and understand the purpose of the interaction. That in turn can contribute to negative feelings and emotional outbursts from everyone involved.

Straightforward verbal communication usually focuses on facts and data, while nonverbal communication adds your emotions to the message being delivered. It is up to you whether the emotions will be positive or negative. Think about the last time you deployed the LARA technique. You may have solely communicated verbally, coming across as cold and detached. By now, both of you have experienced a high level of emotions that are inhibiting you from thinking methodically and with reason.

Before addressing the emotional situation, recognize how your body reacts when you are angry. Your body’s reactions are the main drivers of your nonverbal communication. Therefore, try to relax and focus on delivering positive emotions. Normally, our first reaction is to lecture the other person on how irrational they are, adding statements such as “just calm down” or “you are being unreasonable.” In that moment, the opposing party is feeling the exact same way you are.

When you find yourself in this situation, I recommend deploying the CURE tactic:

  • Calm your body by pulling your shoulders away from your ears and taking deep breaths. By bringing oxygen into your body, you are calming your muscles and allowing your body to release tension.
  • Use positive nonverbal cues such as open arms, nodding and eye contact to ease the other party as well as yourself. I would also recommend lowering your voice to a more calming tone. That will make the other person have to stop and listen to what you are trying to say.
  • Respond to the other person’s concerns by restating what you have heard and asking for clarification. People involved in an emotional discussion might say something that they did not intend to share. Therefore, by restating what you heard, you provide the other person the opportunity to clarify the information. You should not use the clarification technique as a win-lose assessment. Instead, consider it a mechanism to allow the other person some thinking time by listening to what they just shared. A good way to do this is by stating: “What I think I heard you say is … Is that correct? Did I miss anything?”
  • Engage the other individual in the conversation by being the first person to take responsibility and admit any wrongdoing. At this point in the discussion, you have clarified different points as well as shared important information. Move forward by making a statement such as, “Thank you for sharing your thoughts with me. I’m sorry that I didn’t take them into account earlier. Based on your input, I’m recommending we do…” By using a statement like this, you are not only acknowledging the other person’s input but also getting closer to an agreed-upon resolution.

All of us are fully capable of deploying techniques such as LARA and CURE, but how can you know if your implementation is effective? Ask reliable colleagues or friends to help you gauge your communication approach. They can act as your advisers, providing honest and realistic input concerning your communication style and effectiveness. They not only understand your style but also realize how your verbal as well as nonverbal communication might affect others.

For instance, they can share with you how many times you stood with your arms and legs crossed while engaged in a conversation. It might sound simple, but this action can come across as uninviting and potentially offensive, which can negatively impact the discussion and the relationship moving forward.

During your next emotional discussion, take the time to determine how and when you can deploy these techniques. It is also OK to ask for extra time before jumping into a discussion, but if you do that, always remember that it is your responsibility to reopen the conversation. Just allowing for some cooling-off time is not going to guarantee resolution. Emotions might diminish, but they will never disappear.


Elizabeth Suárez is director of the HERS (Higher Education Resource Services) Denver Institute.


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